The stealth guitar hero is coming in from the cold.
Like a spy, Albert Lee has been hanging around in the shadows since 1960, when he backed up rock singer Dickie Pride on a tour of Scotland. It was his first time on the road, and he was 16.
His accomplishments since then could fill many pages. He’s played with every kind of legendary star and legendary band, including Head, Hands and Feet, Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds, Deep Purple, the Crickets, the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Prine, Rodney Crowell, John Hartford, Doug Dillard, Roseanne Cash, Earl Scruggs, Joe Cocker, Dolly Parton, Spinal Tap, Carlene Carter, Nanci Griffith, Brad Paisley and Jackson Browne.
He released more than a dozen solo albums under his own name, in addition to playing on the albums of the rich and famous, so his name is out there. But when he performed, it was usually on the side of the stage, or behind the people in the spotlight.
When the stars needed some tuneful backup vocals, he provided them. But most of all, when they needed some guitar fireworks, he could be counted on to always come through. His solos were sometimes dazzling and lightning fast, but fast or not, they were always tasteful, usually upbeat, country flavored, soulful and integral to the song they were punctuating. That’s why he’s always been in demand, both for tours and in the studios.
His solos were greeted with cheers from audiences, but when they were over, Lee went back to the shadows. He was there to enhance, not upstage. He accepted his role as the musician’s musician while performers who couldn’t touch him basked in the spotlight.
But things are heating up for Lee, because now he’s standing under multiple spotlights at the same time. Almost under duress, he’s come to the front of the stage and is leading not one, but two bands.
First there was Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes, which came about through the efforts of steel guitarist Gerry Hogan at a British music festival in 1987. The group has performed intermittently and recorded albums ever since. Many of Lee’s 200 days a year on the road are spent with Hogan’s Heroes, which performs mostly in the United Kingdom and Europe.
When he spoke in a phone interview from his home in Malibu in July, he had already done a tour with the group in March that took a break at Easter and then finished at the end of June.
“We did a tour once a couple of years ago in the United States,” he said, “and it was difficult getting it started and getting equipment and work visas for the guys and so on.”
In today’s music industry economics, transporting a band from Europe to the United States is a logistical and financial challenge for all except arena acts. That’s where Lee’s second band comes in.
“We kind of jokingly call ourselves Albert Lee and the Homeboys,” he said of the band that will be playing with him at the 2012 Los Angeles Guitar Festival. “They’re all based in LA or Southern California.
“The keyboard player, JT Thomas, I’ve known for a long time. I worked with the bass player, Will MacGregor, a long time ago, but only recently did we start to work together again. I thought, wow, I really like this guy.
“Last year, I did a tour with John Jorgenson, like dueling guitars, and the drummer, Jason Smith, was playing with John. I snapped him up, so I hope John is not mad at me.”
The Homeboys group has been playing dates in the United States since last year, including a night at McCabe’s in Santa Monica in July before Albert left to fly to Europe for another tour with his British band. At the show, much of the set was songs he recorded with Hogan’s Heroes, but he points out that the sound is different.
“What I like about this band is that there are just four of us,” he said. “Hogan’s Heroes is a five-piece, with a steel guitar. Sometimes there are too many strings in the same register.”
That blunt assessment by Lee is a side of him that has been there since the beginning of his career. He may adapt like a chameleon to any musical situation, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have strong likes, dislikes and opinions, although he’s the kind of polite fellow who won’t express them unless he’s asked.
One of his musical tastes made a huge impact on his career right at the start. “I started out listening to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers,” he said, “but then I really got into country music in the ‘60s, even though I was playing r&b with Chris Farlowe.
“I’m totally unschooled. I had piano lessons for two years, but back in England in 1958, you taught yourself to play guitar. There was really no one to learn from.
“In fact, I played guitar for 18 months without actually owning one. I used to borrow them from school friends, and then I’d have to give them back. So I just listened to records, finding out what I liked and what I didn’t like. ‘Well, that sounds good. I’ll learn that solo.’ And then, once I learned it, I was proficient enough to sort of play around with it and turn it into something that didn’t sound like the solo, and just add my own kind of angle on it.”
Isn’t that what he’s still doing?
“Oh absolutely. I think if you listen to things I recorded back in the early ‘60s, my style was pretty much formed by then. I was going in the direction where I am now. I’d already decided what I liked in music and guitar playing.
“To be honest, I was influenced more by the country players in the ‘60s than by Jimi Hendrix. I thought it was quite impressive what he was doing, but it certainly wasn’t for me. I was headed in another direction, and that’s probably why I quit Chris Farlowe at the time, because that seemed to be what was expected of a guitar player. And I didn’t want to go in that direction.
“I don’t know if I made the right decision or not back when Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page were thinking ahead and getting big Marshall stacks and playing pretty much what I was playing.
“I grew up with Jimmy Page, you know. He’s a year younger than me. We used to play the same clubs in 1961 in London. We played pretty much in the same style. He got the big rig and really cranked it out, and me, I was just meek Albert, playing with my Telecaster through a Fender 410 Bassman (with four 10-inch speakers), which was actually very unusual in England at the time. Now it’s the classic setup, but back in England then, I had two of possibly three in the whole country.
“Basically it was the country guys over here, James Burton and Roy Nichols and people like that -- I just loved that style of playing.”
When Lee took the road less traveled, he also chose a less lucrative path. But he’s had many years to change directions, and he has the versatility and virtuosity to play nearly any style. But over and over, he chose to stick with what he loves, and he’s never seemed to have the need to be the center of attention.
“No I don’t,” he said. “That’s probably why I’m still slogging around the world making a living. I can’t afford to retire. I look at what I’ve done and how I’m playing compared with contemporaries of mine who’ve made a lot of money who are not playing anywhere near as many days a year as I do.
“They have to practice to get back into shape if they’re going to do a tour. And I never get time to get out of shape. I’m working all the time. I’m always pretty much in top condition as far as my playing goes, because I never stop.”
He stays in shape in other ways, too, he said. “My wife and I are pesco-lacto-ovo vegetarians (they eat fish, eggs and dairy products, in addition to vegetables). She’s been vegetarian most of her life, and I’ve been for about 25 years or so.
“I take care of myself. I never really got into the drugs. I could take it or leave it, and thankfully, I didn’t get heavily involved. I never smoked, and I just like a glass of wine with dinner.”
He and his wife have been together in California since 1974, and they have a 26-year-old daughter who’s studying opera. He also has four grown children and grandchildren from a previous marriage in the United Kingdom. “Some of them are involved in music,” he said.
With his exhausting touring schedule and studio work, Lee is still as involved in his chosen music as he ever was. And for him, the reason is clear.
“It’s the honesty,” he said. “And I’ve always liked happy music. Listening to blues all night would just bore me to tears. The same progressions and the minor keys and whatever. I’m a major key kind of guy. I like folk music, Irish, Scottish, and it’s all related to that, the kind of country music I like.
“I didn’t really like the way country music went later on. We were kind of groundbreaking in a way, although we weren’t doing anything new. We were going back to the roots. And nowadays, with Americana, it seems like it’s gone full circle. There are so many people going back to that original country music from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.”
Interview by Al Rudis